“Hard-liner” Raisi and the Lowest Voter Turnout in Iranian History
An electoral banner supporting Ebrahim Raisi hangs in Tehran, June 10, 2021. Image: Farzad Frames/Shutterstock
On June 18, 2021, Iranians elected a new president. The fact that conservative judge Ebrahim Raisi won the vote with a landslide 17.92 million votes (61.9%) was not a great surprise. Though he is under US sanctions and has been blamed for a role in executing thousands of political foes in the 1980s, the nature of Iranian elections means that only state-approved candidates can stand. All but one of those who made the final cut this year were what Western media define as ‘hard-liners.’ One possible exception was ‘technocrat’ Abdolnaser Hemmati, a former governor of the Central Bank of Iran. An Atlantic Council article hinted that Hemmati’s support might have been affected by “cyber-attacks and polling manipulation.” However, fighting on an anti-corruption platform, Raisi was always likely to be the front-runner amid the candidates on offer.
Many more liberal-minded members of the electorate had lost their political appetite after a crackdown in which more than 300 protestors died in 2019, and Covid, as well as boycotts, were an additional reason for some to avoid the polling booths. The Washington Post quoted one former ‘reformist’ supporter as suggesting that it was probably worth letting the hard-liners win so that they’ll have “no excuses for the failures and mismanagement.
Perhaps the most significant statistics were figures showing that the election had the lowest turnout rate in the history of the Islamic republic (48.8%). The second most significant being that there were a remarkable 3.7 million spoiled ballot papers. At over 13%, that made invalidating the paper the second most popular choice, ahead of Mohsen Rezee, a senior military officer in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps who garnered 3.4 million (11.7%) of votes cast. According to at least one report, some protest-voters chose write-in candidates, including Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Not surprisingly, Western governments perceived Raisi’s election triumph negatively. State Department spokesperson Ned Price gave an oft-repeated US view that the Iranian system of democracy wasn’t free and fair, while Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabei hit back that “despite the flashy show of democracy in the US, everybody is aware today how defective and corrupt their proclaimed democracy is.” However, for now at least, both sides remain committed to continuing key talks in Vienna on the possible re-establishment of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), limiting Iran’s nuclear potential in return for the end of international sanctions.
Raisi’s government will take its place in August, replacing that of Hassan Rouhani, whose two terms were seen as showing a moderate stance on social and political issues. However, it is worth underlining that the role of president in Iran does not imply unfettered power – indeed, the key levers are controlled by the Supreme Leader, octogenarian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.